iDesign: The Iconic Portable Speakers of Altec Lansing | iLounge Article

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iDesign: The Iconic Portable Speakers of Altec Lansing

Only two companies can reasonably claim to have defined the iPod speaker accessory category. One year before Bose came along with the $300 SoundDock—a comparatively expensive, visually neutral all-in-one speaker system that has sold millions of units—Altec Lansing debuted inMotion, a $150 fold-up speaker that perfectly matched the earliest docking iPod in both looks and spirit. inMotion was a sensation, adding four battery-powered 1-inch speaker drivers to Apple’s portable media player, enabling students, travelers, and at-home users to enjoy music without headphones wherever they might be. Soon thereafter, inMotion would go on to inspire an entire family of Altec portable speaker products, as well as non-portable Altec speakers, and numerous blatant clones.

In equal parts due to their innovative practicality and attractive, iconic designs, our seventh edition of iDesign focuses on the inMotion family of speakers from Altec Lansing—products that created the portable iPod speaker market, then expanded it by repeatedly redefining the word “portability” for different types of users. We hope you enjoy this look at one of the most influential product families in the world of iPod and iPhone accessories.

inMotion: The Logical Alternative to Earphones

From the earliest days of the iPod’s life, Apple had obviously intended the device to be a portable listening solution—not only didn’t the company release its own car or speaker accessories; it also designed the original iPods without an ideal way to connect to them. The first- and second-generation iPods, sold from 2001 through early 2003, featured headphone and FireWire ports, nothing more, and Apple emphasized earbuds as the key to iPod music enjoyment. Only through the work of external developers did these models gain docks, car chargers, and other accessories that anticipated their use with home and car stereos.

With the release of the third-generation iPod at the end of April, 2003, that began to change. The new model added what came to be known as the Dock Connector port, a sophisticated, proprietary 30-pin connector mounted on the bottom, positioned so that this iPod could stand upright in “Docks.” Speakers no longer needed to connect uneasily to this iPod through the top-mounted headphone port; instead, the iPod could sit inside a dock mounted between, on top of, or next to the speakers, and pump music out of its bottom. Altec Lansing seized the opportunity to be first with a combination of speakers and dock, and the result was the November, 2003 release of inMotion.

Unlike earlier speakers that just happened to work with the iPod—or any other audio device—when connected via minijack cables to their headphone ports, inMotion was designed from the ground up to serve as a portable speaker dock for iPod users. There was a flat white plastic base with volume controls, a power switch, and an iPod dock in the center, measuring a book-sized 8” by 5.4” by 1.2” when collapsed. The silver, iPod-matching speaker drivers, which were folded away for protection while being carried around, flipped out from under the base and aligned themselves in parallel with the docked iPod. A wall power adapter was included for use while at home, but the real draw was that inMotion could run off of four AA batteries for up to 24 hours of continuous playback. Just like the iPod, you could use it anywhere. And at $150, it sold for only half the price of the least-expensive iPod, which made a lot of sense.

At the time of inMotion’s release, and even for months thereafter, Altec had a lock on the concept of a docking iPod speaker system—a fact which interestingly led users to try and adapt the small system to their needs. For instance, inMotion lacked a remote control, so some users interested in mounting the system on a bookshelf found TEN Technology’s naviPod to be a convenient but pricey workaround. And when Apple introduced the smaller, round-edged iPod mini, the original inMotion suddenly seemed comparatively big and not as close of a cosmetic match for the aluminum casing. So, in addition to quietly releasing a cheaper, device agnostic “inMotion iM2” that iPod owners barely heard about, Altec followed up the original inMotion with two iPod-specific sequels.

Announced in August, 2004 and released in September, the inMotion iMmini was a sleeker, smaller, and less expensive version of inMotion, now possessing metal-covered speaker grilles and a pop-out dock with a rear leg that provided stand-up stabilization. Interestingly, mini’s use of small and large speaker drivers expanded its treble performance over inMotion’s—a reason that even full-sized iPod owners might prefer it—but the dock was specifically sized and shaped to hold the iPod mini. The 7” x 4.4” x 1” enclosure included a plastic front shell for added protection during travel; once again, the “just right” $130 price was roughly half the cost of the iPod it was sold to match.

Also appearing in September, 2004 was the inMotion iM3. Unlike iMmini, iM3 was designed as a step up from the classic inMotion, adding an Infrared remote control, metal speaker grilles, and a nicer-looking iPod dock. Though the dock was subsequently updated slightly for compatibility with later iPods in the “iM3c” model shown here—a change that would prove important as Apple continuously and rapidly changed iPod sizes and shapes—the template for a more deluxe portable iPod speaker system was established with iM3.

And so, as time went on, Altec’s designers released many iterations of the core inMotion concept. In late 2005, there was the $150 iM5, a shorter, more brick-like replacement for the remote-less inMotion, which Altec had kept around as a mid-priced alternative to the $130 iMmini and $180 iM3. Then early 2006 brought the iM11, a stripped-down $100 speaker that looked like the iMmini in a post-iPod mini world. Like the earlier products they were based upon, iM5 and iM11 folded down for easy storage, and employed the same combination of white plastic and silver grilles.

But the iPod world was changing rapidly, especially as iPod speakers were concerned. iM5 had been designed as a “pretty close” replacement for the inMotion, but didn’t preserve its sound quality, while competitors such as the Logitech mm50 were beginning to appear with better-sounding, more feature-laden designs at the same price point. iM11 appeared to have been released as a response to cheaper inMotion wannabes, such as the Logic 3 i-Station, which were retailing for less than the price of iMmini.

The design similarities between the original inMotion and i-Station were obvious, but i-Station was different enough—mostly thanks to its integrated “subwoofer”—to stand on its own as a separate product, rather than as a complete clone. Still, less well-known companies in Asia completely copied Altec’s designs, releasing speakers that were all but indistinguishable from the classic white and silver inMotions. It was time for a change.

Introducing the iMx00 Series

When Apple introduced the iPod nano in late 2005, adding the phrase “impossibly thin” to the global vernacular, a hundred third-party developers suddenly found that their iPod mini accessories had become obsolete; the svelte nano shocked companies that were relying on Apple to keep producing the popular mini for years to come. Suddenly, the iMmini made less sense, and though Altec would quietly rebrand the device under the generic “iM300” name to clear out remaining inventories, it had something better planned: a completely new speaker called the iM500.

Priced at the same $130 mark as the iMmini, the iM500 borrowed the iPod nano’s marketing phraseology, as Altec pitched it as “lightweight and impossibly thin,” highlighting its 12-ounce weight and 8.5” by 5” by 0.7” folded-up frame. iM500 had dropped three ounces from the prior model, and though it was taller by around half an inch and wider by an inch and a half, it was thinner by a third of an inch. The thickness difference was striking in comparison; iM500 looked more like a flat-panel speaker than the iMmini.

But, as is almost invariably the case with thin speakers, iM500 wasn’t the audio rival of its well-designed predecessor, and its switch from four AA batteries to six smaller AAA batteries was compounded with worse battery life: 10 hours to iMmini’s 24. On the other hand, iM500 benefitted tremendously from a completely redesigned enclosure that fit the iPod nano and looked nothing like the prior inMotions: it was jet black, with a matching full face metal grille, and worked visually with the white and black nanos that were available when it debuted in August, 2006.

Of course, almost a year had passed since the iPod nano had debuted, and Apple wasn’t about to sit still with the first-generation design. Only a month after Altec released iM500, Apple replaced the white and black nanos with colored aluminum versions that didn’t fit perfectly on the speaker’s specially designed dock. Two years in a row, Apple had killed popular products to replace them with something better, and accessory makers had been burned on model-specific accessories. It was the clearest sign yet that iPod-agnostic add-ons—or, perhaps, device-agnostic add-ons—were safer to create, and for customers to buy. Like a number of other companies, Altec opted to try making speakers for SanDisk’s Sansa and Microsoft’s Zune devices, reusing designs that had originally been created for iPods.

But no one was ready to walk away from the iPod family, given its popularity. Announced in January, 2007, Altec’s iM600 appeared to be the embodiment of all the company had learned from its past products, and its competitors. With an all-black design inspired by the iM500, the iPod-agnostic iM600 was clearly targeted directly at the increasingly popular Logitech mm50, closely tracking its audio performance, integrated rechargeable battery, included Infrared remote control, and $150 price point—$30 lower than Altec had sold its prior remote controlled iM3 for. And iM600 had an extra ace up its sleeve: an integrated digital FM radio tuner, something that Logitech hadn’t included.

All of these features were housed in a shell that evoked iM500’s thinness, though it was significantly larger and heavier: 11” by 5” by 1.7”, and 2.1 pounds—3” wider, half an inch thicker, and more than twice the weight of the original inMotion, partially due to the included battery. This added size gave iM600 a substantial leg up in audio performance relative to the older inMotions, and the room for a dock that could hold any sized iPod, unlike the nano-specific iM500.

Thus, iM600 brought the inMotion family full circle from where it had began in 2003: the original inMotion had been a nice portable add-on that set a baseline for $150 speaker expectations upon introduction, and iM600 had did the same in an era of darker, more powerful iPods. Between Logitech’s mm50—or its later, substantially similar replacement Pure-Fi Anywhere—and the iM600, the $150 bag-ready iPod speaker category is now thoroughly defined. Only a major competitive change could radically alter this particular niche’s landscape.

So Why Other inMotions, Then?

Though it might seem from this brief history that Altec was content to let Bose own the $200-and-up speaker market while inMotion speakers fought for $180-and-below shelf space, nothing could be further from the truth. Soon after the late 2004 release of SoundDock, Altec debuted a comparatively spectacular system as an alternative: inMotion iM7.

Shaped like a huge tube, the 16.25” wide, 6.5” diameter iM7 was as good of a challenger to the SoundDock as any company would formulate for two or three years, hitting Bose in performance, design, features, and pricing. Aesthetically designed by outside design company IDEO, the $250 iM7 packed five speaker drivers, most notably a center-mounted, side-firing subwoofer, which gave the system incredible bass power and superb overall frequency response. The biggest surprise was its portability—a handle on top and a battery compartment on bottom let it travel with users to the backyard, beach, or bedroom—though it sounded great when placed indoors and tethered to its included wall adapter. At ten pounds in weight, iM7 may have been the least portable of the inMotion family, but it was definitely the one that most often felt worthy of being carried around.

With the exception of two comparatively small and eventually resolved issues, specifically an underwhelming remote control and a cassette tape-styled iPod dock that looked great but was subject to accidentally popping open—iM7 seemed to have gotten everything right immediately out of the gate. Like the less expensive inMotions, it was cloned by other companies, most notably including iLive’s sonically disasterous, bizarrely named IBCD3816D. Yet it outlived many lesser products: only in 2008 was the iM7 system discontinued, and it saw dramatically lower street prices during its active lifespan.

Still, the SoundDock’s continued success and form factor compelled Altec to keep trying to develop speakers that would be viewed either as Bose peers, or smarter alternatives. Debuted in early 2006, the company’s iM9 was another attempted body blow to the SoundDock—a system with extremely similar audio quality, a $100 lower price tag, and the ability to run off of four C-cell batteries for 24 hours.

Larger than the iM3, the 11” by 7.8” by 3” iM9 was also considerably more ruggedized. Made primarily from matte-finished black plastic rather than the glossy white plastic common to iPod speaker systems of its time, the system was touted as shockproof, uniquely packaged with a carrying backpack so that you could take it outdoors, and equipped with rubberized sides, buttons, and sealed ports.

As a SoundDock rival, all it lacked was a remote control—a surprising omission, but one that was forgivable given the $100 price difference between the products. Neither product included bass or treble controls, a feature that continued to make iM7 an attractive option for people who enjoyed tweaking music to a specific sound signature, and iM9 kept its controls extremely simple: volume and power, with an eject button for the front-mounted dock.

iM9’s only failing was one that Altec apparently hadn’t completely anticipated.  At the time of its debut, the product was billed as splash-resistant, a claim that was retracted before iM9’s release when it was pointed out that the system’s center iPod dock had no plastic or other protection for the device inside. Consequently, though a slightly different design would have put iM9 into a substantially different category from the more fragile, museum-ready iM7, the newer unit eventually settled in as just a smaller, cheaper alternative with less audio horsepower. iM7 continued to make more sense, assuming that you were willing to deal with its added width and possibly pay a small premium.

Beyond inMotion: The Future of Altec’s iPod Systems?

Over the years, Altec’s biggest hits have been truly portable systems, and its designs have been the envy of dozens if not hundreds of lesser companies around the globe. Examples of outright duplicates of its speakers are numerous, and the company’s influence has even extended into related accessory categories: it’s hard, for instance, to imagine how iPod portable video displays such as Memorex’s iFlip might have looked had Altec never paved the way with its inMotion speakers.

Yet the company’s own efforts outside of its portable comfort zone have been mixed, most notably with the just plain weird iMV712. In what appeared to be an attempt to build on the success of the iM7, Altec developed a system with some similar audio hardware inside and a 8.5” TV screen grafted onto its face. Sold for a relatively whopping $350, the iMV712 kept the inMotion name, but for no apparent reason: unlike every other member of that family, it wasn’t a portable system. At 18.5” wide by 7.5” tall and 8” deep, it was larger in all dimensions than the iM7, couldn’t run off of batteries, and did nothing more than add a big screen that only worked with the fifth-generation iPod. Four months later, Apple discontinued that iPod and introduced three new video-ready models, none of which could use the iMV712’s integrated monitor. Unlike the earlier unfortunately timed inMotion releases, this one didn’t evoke quite the same sense of loss.

There was also the M602, another direct competitor to the SoundDock, this time more directly targeted at its strengths than the earlier iM9. M602 was designed to deliver a pure Bose alternative, with similarly neutral styling, no portability, and a remote control—all for $100 less than the SoundDock. While it came close in sound quality, and offered more user-adjustability, ports, and an optional wall mounting kit, it wasn’t quite Bose’s match in the bass department, and didn’t surpass it in any major way. Altec later preserved almost all of M602’s looks and features for the nearly identical T612, which became the first Works With iPhone speaker, and received some pleasant cosmetic updates in the process.

Will Altec Lansing create portable speakers for the iPhone and modern iPods that rival the influence of its original inMotions? Since the company is one of the industry’s quieter developers, typically revealing new products only a couple of months before they’re available for purchase, it’s hard to know for sure what the future holds: as of January of this year, the company appeared to be committed to creating more iPhone-friendly sound systems, and was enthusiastic about earphones that it had co-developed with its parent company Plantronics. For years, we’ve been waiting to see what the company could do with a truly portable video display and speaker unit akin to the early inMotions, or an updated audio chassis with the gorgeous styling and impressive horsepower of the now classic iM7. Will 2008 be that year? Like you, we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed and wallets ready.

[Editor’s Note: iDesign is produced by the Editors of iLounge without any involvement from developers or vendors of Apple products. Products are selected fully on merit, with nothing else as a consideration; the subjects of each article see and learn about their inclusion in iDesign for the first time only after the article is published. When possible, we publish a second part to each article, a follow-up interview with the people behind the design. Our goal is to honor impressive products and designers with honest, independent assessments of their best products, and inspire others to create similarly superb options. Additional notes on the creation of iDesign are available here.]

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Comments

1

FYI, IDEO should get a lot more credit for Altec’s design beyond the IM7:
http://www.ideo.com/portfolio/re.asp?x=19006011

Posted by Booleansplit on April 12, 2008 at 6:41 AM (PDT)

2

Hi,

I am an aerobics teacher and I am just moving into i-Pod technology. I would grateful for advice as to the best i-pod docking system that is portable, retains the sound quality at high volumes and best value for money. Thanks in advance for help.

Posted by Karen Grant on March 6, 2009 at 4:33 PM (PDT)

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